DENVER — Just like he did for four years as a Bronco, Aqib Talib walked out of the home tunnel at Empower Field at Mile High on Saturday to the sound of fans yelling his name.
They yelled for Talib's attention. They yelled for Talib's autograph. And one fan yelled for Talib to rip his chain off his neck.
Talib could only laugh at that offer, but he'd oblige the others, signing game-day programs, trading cards, jerseys or whatever else was offered to him.
It was Talib's first time back in the stadium for a game since New Year's Eve in 2017, his final game as a Bronco. Memories rushed back as he hugged former Super Bowl 50 teammate Von Miller and caught up with several other Broncos on the field where he had been a four-time Pro Bowler and where he helped Denver earn a Super Bowl 50 berth.
This was homecoming, and he'd not been back since he graduated. It all felt like normal, except that he wasn't wearing an orange Broncos uniform and he wasn't playing in the game.
Still, he was performing on Saturday. Moving behind the south end zone, Talib took his seat as part of the Los Angeles Rams' preseason broadcast crew alongside Andrew Siciliano and Mina Kimes, normally of NFL Network and ESPN, respectively.
Talib's rookie season as a broadcaster for FOX Sports was comprised of just two games in 2020, but he had been impressive enough in that limited spotlight to earn this opportunity and a greater role for FOX this season, carving out a unique place in the NFL broadcasting landscape that's made him a favorite for fans, media and the network alike.
"He sounds amazing because he's not what you're used to," Siciliano says, "and he's a fresh perspective, a fresh voice."
That Talib's found success in sports media is maybe not a surprise to those who followed his career, watched his press conferences or seen any of his previous studio appearances on NFL Network. What's surprising, though, is how quick his ascension has been and where it could take him.
Even today, Talib is less than a year removed from his retirement as an NFL player, and it was only two months after that when he announced that his first game broadcast as a color commentator would be coming later that week.
But while it seemed like a rapid development, the opportunity arose after a lengthy observation period by a FOX Sports group that included Brad Zager, FOX Sports Executive Producer and Executive Vice President/Head of Production and Operations.
"He was somebody that we had always heard was a fun talk," Zager says. "When you had conversations with him, you really got it that his football IQ was off the charts and he's a guy that gave it to everybody real. When he was playing for the Rams, he actually came in and met with myself and Bill Richards, who oversees our 'FOX NFL Sunday' studio show. The two of us realized what everybody told us was the truth, which is he's somebody that you just enjoy sitting around a table and talking football with. He knows what he's talking about."
After that meeting, Zager and FOX kept in touch with Talib, and in 2020, they set up an audition with veteran play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt.
For auditions like this one, FOX notifies the recruit no more than 18 hours in advance. The hope is that they won't simply go back and watch the game, instead using that time to study game notes provided by the network. It's a test of a person's ability to retain knowledge on a short turnaround, how easily they can create on-air chemistry and how well they think on their feet.
"It kind of surprised me, kind of caught me by surprise," Talib says. "I was like, Hell yeah. I might as well, right? So it kind of just came out of nowhere, and once I started doing it, it's so much fun. It's like the closest you can get to the game besides playing or coaching. I love it."
In part because of that contagious feeling, Talib made a lasting impression on those who watched the audition. If and when there was a broadcast opening that season, Talib would be deserving of consideration.
"Being in the booth isn't easy, and there's not a lot of opportunities for it," Zager says. "It's a small group of people that get to go out there on Sundays and Thursdays and Monday nights and call NFL games. So, we just felt like based on what we had saw … all of us just felt like it popped. His audition stood out. It popped. It felt different."
Months later, in November, Talib made an announcement. In four days' time, he'd make his color-commentating debut as Detroit hosted Washington.
"I'm in the booth booth!" he exclaimed.
Just like when he was a player, Talib arrived for the game well dressed and nervous as hell.
Talib's always been one to get anxious before a game, and he wasn't any calmer in those moments just because he would be in the broadcast booth.
That may have been somewhat evident in this rookie debut, as Talib can recognize now.
"The first time I was in there, I definitely was like, Oh, s---, this going fast! and I was like, Damn, do I talk now?" Talib says. "Sometimes I was finna talk and he [play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin] starts talking. So when to talk and how fast it's moving was definitely the hardest part about being up there."
Despite the small hiccups, Talib's energy, knowledge and sheer love for the game was evident. The former star cornerback could give bite-size dissertations on what everyone from quarterbacks to defensive backs target on any given play, but in a way unique to his voice.
"I remember his first game with the Lions," Siciliano says. "… I was in the studio just watching Twitter lose its mind because they didn't know how to deal with him. He doesn't sound like what they were used to."
Five weeks later, Talib returned to the booth to call a game between the Cardinals and Eagles that was days before Christmas. Talib dressed for the occasion in a sharp green suit, a red tie and white shoes.
"It's still a performance, so you've still got to look good," Talib says. "You look good, you feel good. You feel good, you play good. That part don't change."
True to that axiom, Talib "played" good.
"In that game, man, that's the one where you see, Nah, he can do this. He can make this happen," Bleacher Report senior writer Master Tesfatsion says. "And not only can he do this, he can do it the way he's doing it, which is being himself. I thought that that was the most impressive part."
His call after a game-winning touchdown to Arizona WR DeAndre Hopkins provided one memorable moment: "What do you do, what do you do? Try to play man coverage, got to cover Hopkins. Try to play zone coverage, Kyler Murray dices it up." Throughout the game, Talib had explained the difficulties executing defensive strategies like zero coverage — "man to man, no help nowhere" — against Arizona's offense, and it came to a point with that score.
Just as memorable was the minute or so that followed a commercial break after the touchdown as he bantered with Gaudin about the holiday season.
"It's definitely starting to feel a lot like Christmas," Talib began. "Cheerleaders in their Santa Claus suits, 'Leeb' in his green-and-red this week. Me and the wife got our shopping done this week. It's definitely starting to feel a lot like Christmas."
That balance of football knowledge and levity from him is not surprising to those who have followed his career. His sense of humor has always been sharp, and the little bits where it can come out endears himself to viewers.
"It's amazing," Kimes says. "It's incredible. Not only does he bring incredible knowledge and insight, obviously, but just his enthusiasm is infectious. I think that's why people respond to be being around him and watching him on TV. He genuinely seems to love watching football, which is great."
And more than that, Talib's voice — including his verbiage, his grammar and his tone — occupies a unique space in the NFL broadcasting landscape.